What image comes to mind when you hear “solar energy professionals?”
Did you picture a cohort of smart and dedicated young women?
A couple of weeks ago I attended the groundbreaking at Yahara Solar, Dane County’s newest solar project, which is a partnership with Alliant Energy and SunVest. At the event I noticed that about a third of the SunVest team in attendance were women. Intrigued, I set up a video meeting to chat with them. You can watch the video of our call here. Ultimately four female SunVest employees participated in the discussion. Participating were:
• Catie Malcheski, a project developer
• Sam Green, a project developer
• Cariah Ramsey, a design engineer
• Mariah Kennedy, a project coordinator
All four of these women are actively engaged in making solar projects happen. These aren’t the only women at SunVest, of course, but all four of these women are in technical roles and that is notable in a field where men still outnumber women by considerable margins.
To be clear, I know other women in the solar industry, including a few who have been leaders for decades. Still, it’s not typical to see numerous women in a variety of technical roles in a solar company.
I was interested to hear what inspired them to pursue careers in solar. Several of them spoke about how the solar industry fulfilled their interest in contributing to sustainability and climate action. Catie talked about how she changed her major from marketing to environmental studies after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. Mariah said about she switched from mechanical engineering at UW-Platteville to the Sustainability and Renewable Energy Systems (SRES) program after taking a class and getting hooked. Cariah shared that she came to SunVest from an architectural firm because she wanted to have a bigger environmental impact.
The women also made clear that representation matters. Sam noted that when she applied for a job at SunVest, Catie was one of the SunVest staff who interviewed her. Sam said that seeing another woman working successfully in the industry influenced Sam’s decision to join SunVest.
We also chatted a bit about their advice for other young women and strategies for engaging more women in the solar industry. Listening to these young women I was really struck by the smart things they said—I’m sure I was over 40 before I had even half as many useful career insights! These young women talked about the importance of trying different things to see which roles were most appealing, and to being open to different activities because everything is a learning opportunity and learnings can transfer in unexpected ways.
The young women were also interested in how they could work with our office to expose more girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. We brainstormed about more ways to create tour opportunities and other hands-on events around solar installations. (More on that is likely forthcoming!) Definitely if you readers have thoughts on that I hope you’ll reach out to me too.
Our conversation was inspiring. Solar energy is an important piece of our clean energy future so it is awesome to see increasingly diverse groups of people involved in the industry. Part of scaling solar is making it normal—normal for women, for People of Color, for rural folks as well as urban apartment dwellers, for everyone. It is good to see how local organizations are expanding the solar workforce!
Kathy is the Director of the Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change. In that role she's leading efforts to implement the Climate Action Plan. Prior to coming to Dane County, Kathy led Cool Choices and, prior to that, she led Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program.
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